How smartphones are making us lonely.
There was a time when we used to lose people. I don’t mean, like, in the middle of a shopping mall in the middle of a circular metal coat-rack, I mean like over the long sunset of life. People careened in and out. We lost touch. That whole “people come into your life for a season or a reason” Hallmark-card thing.
There was a time, when —due to the very essence of proximity — our worlds were only as thick as our Rolodex, as long as our memory, or as big as our city. Those days have long since passed us by.
We’ve now entered an era of Micro-imperialism, when people become brands and become rulers over a domain of some combination of people they’ve run into, and people they wish they could run into. Within three clicks and a scroll on our smartphone, we can now collect humans like trading cards. With every new life phase, with every new connection we make, with every new job we take and new city we move to, we amass a new spectrum of folks. We greet them. We meet them. We add them to our arsenal of human weaponry that we can deploy at any time to our advantage — should we choose to.
This fundamentally contributes, ironically, to our twinge of perpetual loneliness and our Sisyphean quest for ever-new people to quench our thirst to be accepted, loved and welcomed.
There’s a concept called Dunbar’s Number, which suggests that the maximum number of people we can keep up with or connect to at any given time is 150. This flies in the face of the way we form relationships in the modern age. On any given day, it’s possible to confront at least twice that many faces — certainly virtually or, ever-less-frequently, IRL.
We now have an unlimited capacity to form new relationships with people all over the world, and an ability to become close with people who have zero business being all that close to us. Dunbar’s Number is cracking under the weight of our ever-more-insatiable hunger to craft our perfect social circle. Ask any mildly famous person on Twitter what their mentions look like: It’s a self-sustaining din of chatter that’s simultaneously behind their back and also in plain sight. It is now possible to build a social community that exists as its own self-feeding entity: too large to keep up with, too diverse to possibly relate to, and too unwieldy to control.
I used to have some 3,000 Facebook friends. That’s preposterous. That’s people-hoarding. I didn’t know all of them. I didn’t like all of them. I didn’t want most of them. My feed was an evergreen scroll of things I couldn’t understand, updates I didn’t care about, and names I didn’t recognize. So I cut down (to 500) — and I tried to keep it hovering around that upper limit ever since. Still, there were days when it felt like I was star-hopping, so I quit posting to Facebook altogether.
Why do we feel the need to grow our own Cults of Personality? What drives us to continue to seek novel stimulation from an ever-expanding array of sources? These are humans, after all — not experiences or drugs. What draws us to new people, and why do we use them up for entertainment and education, and then gently brush them aside in favor of a newer model?
It’s become likely that we are grazing and snacking on people instead of indulging in the whole of a person. If you put out a massive plate of shrimp cocktail at a party, without warning the guests that there will be an extraordinary lobster main course — and, hey, props to you for footing that dinner party bill, you high roller — you’ll note a lot of super-pricey shellfish left on the dinner plate, as it’s pretty hard to deter throngs of hungry guests from filling up on anything as small and delicious and plentiful as cool shrimp, ketchup and horseradish. With every like, every heart, every text, and every GIF, we let a buffet of people grow incrementally closer without saving room for perhaps the one person who would really fill us up inside.
Perhaps most unsettling, there was a time when we used to regularly upset people and be required to make amends. In fact, it was quite common up until this century. You’d offend someone with an off-color joke, or an ill-advised assault on someone’s values, and you’d have to take your lumps, get back on the horse, show contrition and promise you would make it up to them. Back then, we had no other options — people were scarce and relationships with precious and fragile. Neither of these conditions are true anymore. We can ghost, slow fade, or duck out at any time. There’s always another train coming.
Between our phones, air travel, the Internet, we now have access to more people than we’ve ever had before in our lives. The endless supply has deflated the value of the whole human. Instead, we now merely value the sex, the laughter, the smiles, the chemistry, the sharing — the surface-level pleasures — without needing to put anywhere near the work that we used to put into maintaining intimacy, without forcing ourselves to put up with the horseshit that used to “come with the territory.” Anyone mildly abrasive, anyone mildly upset with us, can be trashed with the efficacy and carelessness of last month’s free alt-weekly.
People as currency. As options. We no longer tend to the soils of our relationships, rather, we browse the Saturday morning farmer’s market. Friends and colleagues are chewed up, the bones are spit out, and we find the next brightly colored diamond in our sights. Yet, we stay loosely connected — just in case. 5,000. 10,000. 20,000. 50,000. Small cities of people only tied together by a loose common thread — you. An endless well of entertainment, good vibes and effortless enjoyment. Available at the tap of a screen — it’s as easy to move on to the next one as it was for me to move onto the next metaphor this paragraph.
And, yet, here we stand. Still alone, even with everybody. And in that loneliness, we’ll seek out new horizons under which to sleep, hoping that as the warm sun of intimacy continues to remain ever elusive and just out of our grasp, that the warm glow of our screen will keep us company and get us high again, while we fail to notice people careening in and out. Even as it’s become harder to lose people, it’s easier than ever to feel completely lost. We used to know our friends … now we just have them.
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Friends And Other Drugs was originally published in P.S. I Love You on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.